AUTHOR, SINGER, poet, orator, actress and civil rights activist Maya Angelou has had many jobs in her storied life — including, when she was growing up in the Fillmore, a stint as a calypso dancer at the Purple Onion in North Beach.
Recently Angelou recalled her first job: as a San Francisco streetcar conductor.
“I liked the uniforms,” she says. So the 6-foot-tall 16-year-old applied for a job. “I had seen women on the street cars,” she says. “I just had not noticed they were all white. It hadn’t occurred to me.”
When they wouldn’t even give her an application, “I was crestfallen,” she says. Then her mother put steel in her spine. “Go get the job,” her mother told her. “You want it, then go get it.” She went back to the office, taking along “a big Russian novel” to read while she waited.
“By the third day, I wanted to return home,” she says. “But I didn’t want my mother to know I wasn’t as strong as she thought I was. So I sat there for two weeks. And finally a man came out and asked me in.”
Her tenacity won him over — along with her claim of experience working as a “chauffeurette for Mrs. Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas” — her grandmother.
“He accepted me and I got the job,” she says. “That was really my mother’s doing. She was so strict — and so sure about me.”
Angelou says her mother was again a catalytic force in her life a few years later.
“When I was 22, I walked down Fulton Street with her,” she says, between Fillmore and Steiner. “On the corner there used to be a mayonnaise and pickles place,” she says. “And the aroma of the vinegar — I can remember it now, 60 years later.”
“My mother said, ‘Baby, I think you’re the greatest woman I’ve ever met.’ I looked down at her — this pretty little woman with diamond earrings, a beautiful smile and make-up — and she owned a hotel! She said, ‘Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. You’re in that category.’ ”
With that, her mother kissed her and jaywalked across the street to her car.
“I continued down to Fillmore and waited for the 22 car,” she says. “I remember getting on the streetcar. I remember the wooden seat and the sunlight on it — I remember all of that. And I thought, ‘Suppose she’s right. Suppose I really am going to be somebody.’ ”
Some years later, still in San Francisco, Angelou says she was stirred by a powerful spiritual awakening. She was brought to Unity Church by her voice teacher, who was noted for working with opera stars. He passed around the book Lessons in Truth, the classic summation of Unity’s philosophy, and asked her to read a portion.
“I read a portion which said, ‘God loves me,’ ” Angelou says. “He asked me to read it again. And I read, ‘God loves me.’ Then he asked me to read it again. He seemed to be putting me up for laughter,” she says, recalling that all the other students in the room were white and older.
“And finally, out of desperation, I read: ‘God. Loves. Me.’ It still amazes me. I heard it. I don’t mean I just listened to it. I mean my soul heard it,” she says. “That was over 50 years ago. And I have been a student of Unity from that day to this.”
MAYA ANGELOU AND FILLMORE UNITY
On Sunday, July 21, 2013, Unity Church at 2222 Bush Street, near Fillmore, will celebrate its 94th anniversary and former parishioner Maya Angelou will join in via an intimate telephone interview with Rev. Denese Schellink. In the conversation, Angelou elaborates on her early experiences in San Francisco, where she first embraced Unity’s teachings.